Pets hold a special place in many of our hearts. For some people, they are akin to family members or best friends. During a divorce or separation, deciding who gets a beloved pet can be challenging, especially when the parties aren’t on amicable terms. Unfortunately, there is no such principle as “pet custody” in New Jersey family law, so creative solutions for this sensitive issue often must be found.
Although we may think of our pets much like children, the law does not treat them that way. Instead, pets acquired during a marriage are considered as part of a divorcing couple’s marital property and so are subject to New Jersey’s equitable distribution law. The family court weighs multiple factors in determining how to evaluate and distribute marital property. While a court may consider each party’s emotional attachment to a pet, there are no specific criteria for fixing a value on a pet for purposes of asset division. The decision on who gets a pet is therefore highly discretionary.
There are ways for divorcing spouses to minimize contention so that both may continue to have a relationship with their pet. One method is to negotiate terms of shared ownership that can be included in their divorce settlement agreement. These terms could include fixing a primary residence for the pet and setting visitation privileges for the other owner. Or there could be a schedule for sharing the pet between residences. If the spouses can’t quite reach agreement on what should happen to their pet, they might consult with a pet mediator to try to reach a resolution. A mediator facilitates discussions between the spouses with the goal of creating a pet sharing plan that addresses the needs of the pet as well as each spouse’s ability to attend to them.
If, despite all efforts, ownership of a pet must be determined in court, the judge has the discretion to consider any relevant factors when applying New Jersey’s equitable distribution criteria. This could mean evaluating who has the closer emotional relationship to the pet, who has provided most of the care in the past and who is better able to provide the pet with a suitable home environment. If you find yourself in a dispute over pet possession, an experienced divorce attorney can advocate for your right to be awarded ownership of your pet as part of the division of your marital property.
The Law Offices of Kisha M. Hebbon, LLC in Somerset represents New Jersey residents in navigating the difficult issues arising in divorce, including questions of who gets the pets. For a free initial consultation, please call the office at 732-873-6464 or contact us online anytime.